The queen of musical theatre graced our presence in Hill Auditorium on Saturday, and I am left speechless. Of course, Audra McDonald blew everyone’s mind with her performances of both classic and lesser-known pieces, all with a meaningful message behind them, with her iconic soprano voice that has won six Tony awards.
She started the night with “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles and its powerful message of being who you are authentically and unapologetically. Then, she sang a selection from Jason Robert Brown’s Song for a New World, showcasing her amazing ability to storytell with “Stars and the Moon.” Also, it is noteworthy that even someone like Audra, who has performed this tour many times and sang hundreds of songs in her entire career, can forget the first words to a song. Nobody is perfect, not even someone as perfect as Audra McDonald, who had to ask her wonderful music director Andy Einhorn on the piano for the beginning to the song. Audra later sang a grand little snippet of “Being Alive” from Company, giving us plenty to think about when it comes to love and what one truly wants.
Before many of the songs, Audra provided the context surrounding the song she was about to sing, or gave a fun little anecdote about it. In the case of “Simple Little Things” from 110 in the Shade, she continued her theme of dreams after telling us about the Golden Fleece and big dreams that the main character Lizzy just simply didn’t want. Later, she also provided an entertaining performance of “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me, which would have been hard to follow if she hadn’t given any context. Additionally, it comes as no surprise that Audra was dominating solo show choir competitions in high school, and she sang the song that won her first place one time, even if her 13-year-old self did not truly understand what “Cornet Man” from Funny Girl was all about.
Audra McDonald reluctantly sang a song that she believes is over-sung, performing her unique take on “I Could Have Danced All Night” while gradually bringing the key up, showing off her impressive soprano range, and also getting everyone to sing along since it is a fairly well-known theatre piece. She also paid tribute to her dear friend, Barbara Cook, by singing the song, “Chain of Love,” in the musical The Grass Harp. Audra then blessed us with a couple mesmerizing lullabies, including “Moonshine Lullaby” from Annie Get Your Gun (which featured her talented band), “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, and “I Won’t Mind” from The Other Franklin. She sang a chilling mashup of “Children Will Listen” and “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” by the musical geniuses Sondheim and Hammerstein, followed by a heartfelt message about the importance of crafting a new generation that can mend all the present pains lingering in the air.
In the second half of her program, she sang more contemporary songs from rising composers. Her humorous performance of “Facebook Song” by Kate Miller Heidke was certainly relatable and enjoyable. Audra also performed “I’ll Be Here,” a piece by Adam Gwon, a Fred Ebb award recipient, who wrote Ordinary Days, a touching musical about New York that references 9/11, a moment that continues to be relevant even today. In response to “I’ll Be Here” and the question of how to live life when so much is happening around us, she shared her mantra with us by singing “Make Someone Happy,” which was especially moving due to the thoughtful selection and timing of the pieces she choose to sang.
The Evening with Audra McDonald had a theme connecting every song, which was very characteristic of her loving and strong nature. She urged everyone to find dreams worth dreaming, to fight for what’s right, and to hold onto our humanity. Fitting right into that theme, her last song on the program was “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” which was spectacular in every sense. After a thundering applause and standing ovation, Audra came back out and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” As expected, it was absolutely beautiful and stunning, a phenomenal performance that finished the night filled with sparks of inspiration with style. After bringing us through some of the gems of musical theatre, she left the stage like the queen she is with some words of wisdom that everyone should hold close to their heart: “Dream big. Love bigger.”